why i hate cookbooks.

“Why I hate cookbooks” may seem like an odd blog post title for someone who owns as many cookbooks as I do, and who regularly swoons over them.  But every so often, I have one of those frustrating cooking experiences that make me almost angry at the cookbook author for whatever flaw in their recipe that caused the demise of my dinner.

a half-baked chicken recipe

The primary problem with cookbooks is obviously that they’re not interactive.  Have a question or need something clarified? You’re outta luck.*  Unlike blogs, where you can usually get a question on a recipe answered via the comments or an email, cookbooks are static and unyielding, leaving many home cooks up in the air and having to guess at what was intended.

Part of this has to do with the fact that many cookbooks assume a level of knowledge or background that may or may not be there.  Many foodies probably scoff at cookbook authors such as Nigella Lawson, who is not a “real chef” but just a home cook like (most of) the rest of us.  But that’s exactly the thing I love about Nigella’s cookbooks (and blogs like the Amateur Gourmet)- they bother to describe mishaps or trouble spots they experienced while making the dish, in hopes of sparing you the same problems.  Details like “don’t worry if your dough appears clumpy” can be invaluable when making a recipe for the first time. (I try to include these types of details in the recipes I give here- it makes them longer, but I’d rather give too much info than not enough!)

rillettes rejects

Another pet peeve is cookbook authors who don’t seem to test their recipes with American ingredients, even though the U. S. is the primary market for their book sales (they should take a page from Julia Child- she specifically tested her French recipes in an American kitchen with American ingredients, to make sure they would work).  I frequently encounter this problem when cooking from ethnic cookbooks whose authors live abroad.  There are big differences in ingredients such as flour or even meat, and adjustments need to be made.  The person executing the recipe should not be expected to know to make these modifications.

you deserve to look at something prettier than my failed recipes…

So, what prompted this bout of cookbook disaffection?  Spending an entire afternoon and evening in the kitchen one Sunday, and having two different dishes not turn out as expected. The dishes attempted were pork rillettes (from Charcuterie) and a baked chicken and freekeh dish (from the The New Book of Middle Eastern Food). The rillettes, made with expensive pastured pork, turned out the consistency of chewed tuna fish. Note to self: next time, do NOT use the stand mixer as suggested in the book!  Next time I’ll use a fork to gently break apart the meat.  Another issue was that there was not even a ballpark indication of how much liquid to add, and I think I added too much, which also contributed to the “wet tuna” consistency.

pork that reminds you of tuna is just… wrong.

The baked chicken dish was rescued but turned into something completely different from what was intended.  I thought the instructions were a little wonky- boil the chicken for an hour, then cut it up and bake it for 30 minutes- but forged ahead, trusting the recipe. After 1 hour of simmering, however, my chicken was falling apart and unable to be cut up into pieces. What would the additional 30 minutes of baking have done anyway, besides drying out the meat?!  Bizarre. (Incidentally, this is not the first time I’ve had an issue with a recipe from this book.)  I ended up picking all of the meat from the carcass, putting it back in the broth with the freekeh,  and just calling it soup.  It tasted fine in the end, but what if I hadn’t been experienced enough to shift gears and transform the dish into something else?

I’ll never fully turn away from cookbooks, but right now, I’m more than a little disenchanted.  My resources (both time and money-wise) are limited, and I can’t afford to devote them to recipes that can’t deliver a reliable result.

6/4/10 UPDATE: I had houseguests from France to whom I hesitantly served the rillettes, explaining that it was my first effort, etc.  They both said that the rillettes were “tout à fait correct” (i.e. just fine), and judging by the quantity they consumed, I don’t think they were just being polite! They said rillettes can range from fine to coarse.  I still think I’ll hand-mix them next time, but it was good to know they weren’t the failure I thought they were. I do think a few weeks in the fridge improved the flavor & texture.

*A couple notable exceptions are Rick Bayless and Paula Wolfert, both of whom are great about answering questions via Twitter!

13 responses to “why i hate cookbooks.

  1. A huge pet peeve of mine as well, especially with baking recipes! I’ve had to learn the hard way (more than once) to thoroughly read recipes several times before starting, to see if my brain can identify the potential problems and pitfalls before starting. Sometimes I’m lucky, other times not.

    I’m a notes person now with my cookbooks — the margins are full of comments on tweaks to the recipe and what worked or didn’t.

    • Ha! Yes, not reading things thoroughly before getting started has definitely been a problem of mine in the past, but in these cases I did everything according to the directions, that’s why it was so frustrating!

  2. Ugh! I have a habit of not being able to follow a recipe 100% – I use my gut instinct a lot. Bad results is a big reason as to why… I do, however, occasionally become moved by a recipe and, typically, end up severely disappointed. Most recently, I came upon a recipe in a book at the library that called for roasting a chicken in the oven “low & slow.” Now, Rob is an accomplished griller and smoker, and that is his mantra. So, against my better judgement, I gave it a whirl. The result was dry, inedible meat. Even the skin was dry! The most frustrating part of the whole debacle was that my spatchcocked chicken is PERFECT. Why mess with success? It was the picture – the stupid picture in the book that made me do it!

    • I love it- “the picture made me do it!” 🙂 Yeah, “slow and low” is great for braised dishes or maybe a beef or lamb roast, but I have always been a fan of the high-heat roast for chicken. Sucks when you go against your own better judgment and follow a recipe. I could write a book on the number of times I’ve done that and been so mad at myself! I’m getting better at trusting my instincts, but it’s hard to do when it’s something you’ve never made before.

  3. Oh my gosh! We were recently given this cookbook and both of the recipes we’ve made so far have had serious problems – fortunately things that I caught and could fix – but your point about recipes NOT being tested in a real kitchen is a good one. Maybe Michael Symon’s fancy chef’s kitchen can reduce a cup of liquid in 3 minutes, but mine certainly can’t. Maybe Michael Symon has ready access to pig heads and beautiful slabs of belly, but I don’t. There’s something to be said for aspirational cookbooks, but too much of that is discouraging for even the most adventurous home cook.

    • That’s interesting… I know Adam over at Amateur Gourmet is a big fan of that book and has had success with a few of the recipes. I haven’t checked it out myself. Although I do like my “food porn” as much as the next person, I do try to buy cookbooks with recipes I feel I could actually make in my kitchen.

  4. I have a growing collection of cookbooks (mostly to help with the ever-disappointing world of gluten-free baking) but I find myself turning to Recipezaar.com more often than any of them. I like the reviews because people point out the rough spots, and give honest impressions of the results. I haven’t had one failure using those recipes. Well, except for that pathetic banana bread that fell and became 1 inch thick. But still tasty!
    GF baking is the suck because the cookbook writers somehow assume that I have the money and space to make 5 different flour blends and store them. Just tell me what’s in THIS recipe, and how much, and I will decide if I can make it! I don’t see myself buying albumen for a quart of flour mix I will use a cup of in the next year.

    • Teri, have you checked out any of the GF blogs? I know Gluten Free Girl is supposed to be a good one. Might be a good way to go, since you could maybe ask about substituting ingredients you didn’t want to commit to purchasing…

  5. Tuna pork? Yuck! You’re right…that’s just wrong. I just found your blog this morning. I really like it:)

  6. Totally agree with you on all this! And that is precisely why I like your blog, Nigella, Amateur Gourmet, etc. Thanks for this post. : )

  7. I can’t believe Bayless answers questions on twitter. That is amazing! I have a love/hate relationship with this cookbook from the Magnolia bakery in NYC. It is supposed to be a great bakery but the recipes are astonishingly vague and imprecise. They say things like, “pinch off a small piece of dough…”. What does that mean? How much is a small piece? I have to read the recipes a couple of times before I start baking or I will get half way through and realize they meant something totally different than what I am doing. But Yum! When you get it right, it can be SO delicious.

  8. Those rillettes look so sad and Charcuterie is a book I’ve wanted to take a look at. I just need an easy way to search all the books I have because when time is short I sit down at the computer instead of looking through cookbooks. I buy them for food porn or the back stories now more than for recipes.

    • Maggie, I still think Charcuterie is a worthwhile book- there are so few books on the subject, and it does have a lot of good info. I have made other recipes from it with no problems. And actually, see my update at the end of this post- the rillettes weren’t so bad after all! 🙂

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